How mom's big push helped key Graterol's success

Dodgers reliever leaned on family when faced with choices, obstacles

October 11th, 2022

LOS ANGELES -- won’t forget it. As he waited for a bus that would take him to a tryout in Maracay, a main city in Venezuela, Graterol looked over and saw a mother and her child selling fruits and vegetables.

His mother, Ysmalia, standing next to him, made sure Graterol -- who was 15 at the time -- watched closely. It wasn’t to cause him fear, but rather so he understood the importance of staying focused.

“'Look, son, if this blessing doesn’t come true, we’re going to be like that family,'” Graterol remembers his mother telling him. “That was tough when my mom showed me that reality. I didn’t say anything. But thankfully, here we are.”

Here he is, serving as a big part of an elite Dodgers bullpen that helped them win a franchise-record 111 regular-season games. Los Angeles, which will go into the postseason without a set closer for the first time in a decade, will continue to lean on Graterol as it pursues a second World Series title in three years.

While Graterol will surely make his presence felt by pounding 101 mph sinkers and flashing a devastating slider, the right-hander is typically much more reserved in the clubhouse. He’s also playful.

Earlier this season, Graterol, 24, wore a massive glove to batting practice, causing Phil Bickford to roll over laughing. Graterol has an Iron Man hand in his locker just in case. He frequently jokes with lockermates Hanser Alberto and Julio Urías, as well as Yency Almonte in the bullpen.

During batting practice, Graterol sometimes turns to someone nearby, flashes a big smile and challenges him to a race into the home dugout. That playful and energetic side is the one the Dodgers have enjoyed over the past two seasons. Since joining the organization in 2020, Graterol, now nicknamed Bazooka, has quickly become a fan favorite.

“I’ve had some wonderful memories in my life,” Graterol told in Spanish. “And some tough memories."

The good memories have been on full display. He made his Major League debut with the Twins on Sept. 1, 2019, fulfilling his dream of playing in the Majors. In ‘20, he won the World Series with the Dodgers. He got married to his wife the following offseason.

But it’s those tough memories, which few people know about, that have helped shape who he is today.

Graterol grew up in Calabozo, a Venezuelan town with a population of about 100,000. He was raised by his mother, who encouraged Graterol to play different sports as a kid. She had been a softball player. He took to baseball, soccer and volleyball.

But as Graterol grew older, he was also exposed to the realities that came with not having a lot of money or resources while living under a dictatorship. People often approached Graterol wondering if he was interested in stealing or selling drugs and guns. Looking for quick money, some of his childhood friends ultimately fell victim to the temptation.

“Those bad influences seem attractive at one point, I can’t lie, because you’re talking about making money, you know what I mean?” Graterol said. “But I was able to fight off those bad influences because I was able to determine what I wanted in my life.”

What Graterol wanted was to pursue a career in baseball. When he turned 14, his mother asked him if he wanted to finish school or if he wanted to make baseball his profession, a difficult choice most baseball players in Latin America ultimately have to make.

Graterol chose to focus on baseball.

With his mother serving as his trainer, he worked out every day. But initially, Graterol wasn’t drawing as much interest from scouts as they had hoped. The first time he visited an academy, scouts watched a much skinnier Graterol throw a fastball that topped out at 78 mph. He did not draw immediate interest, but he was given an invitation to come back one month later if he could increase his velocity.

He got back to work, again pushed by his mother. She would wake him up at 5 a.m. to run laps and go through drills.

“She fought with me through everything,” Graterol said of his mother. “She’s my everything.”

Graterol returned to the academy taking part in a tryout with about 60 other pitchers. He was the last pitcher to take the mound, and this time, he turned some heads. His fastball velocity registered 84-85 mph. A number of scouts were immediately interested in signing him, but it was the Twins who swooped in and gave the right-hander a $150,000 signing bonus in 2014.

“When he started pitching, he faced two batters. But once he was finishing with the second batter, he hurt his leg a little bit,” said Jose Leon, the Twins’ scouting director in Venezuela. “But even after those two batters, we knew he was something special.”

Shortly after signing with the Twins, Graterol packed his bags and headed to the Dominican Republic. He was eager to begin his journey, something he had been dreaming about for years. But just a day after leaving his home, he received a phone call that he’ll never forget.

Graterol’s uncle passed away unexpectedly. The two were around the same age and grew up together. Graterol leaned on his uncle, whom he refers to as his brother, during some of the toughest moments of his life. To this day, Graterol continues to honor him by pointing to the sky in his end-of-inning celebration.

“That’s the biggest obstacle I’ve ever faced in my life. It’s something that I didn’t think I was ever going to get through,” Graterol said. “I really did think about leaving baseball because he was the man of the house, and I was just there trying to reach my dream. Then he dies, and I start thinking, ‘OK, I’m gonna go home and be with my family and be the man of the house now.’ But I knew my mom wasn’t going to let that happen.”

He was right. After consulting with his mom and the rest of his family, Graterol stayed at the academy in the Dominican Republic, though he admitted he would’ve liked to receive permission from the Twins to fly back home to attend the funeral. But as he had done his entire life, Graterol put his head down and got to work.

Graterol made his professional debut in 2015, making four starts in the Dominican Summer League. The following season, Graterol was faced with yet another setback. He needed Tommy John surgery, ending his '16 season.

During his rehab process, Graterol dedicated himself to the gym. He added about 50-60 pounds and, once cleared to pitch again, was throwing much harder than before. In 2017, Graterol went 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA between the complex team and Rookie-level ball.

In ‘18, once he got promoted to High-A in Fort Myers, Fla., Graterol took on a side job so he could send money back home to Venezuela. After a game or workout, he helped his father-in-law with construction. The work sometimes consisted of going underneath houses, eradicating mold or fixing electricity.

In order to protect his pitching hand, Graterol would use his left hand, especially when the work involved electricity. Luis Arráez, the 2022 American League batting champion and Graterol’s roommate in the Minors, would sometimes join Graterol.

“Because we needed the money,” Arráez said, laughing. “I remember a lot of good things about Brusdar. He has a lot of good energy, he’s so strong and when he wants to do something, he does it.”

That level of determination is what has gotten Graterol through the most difficult moments. Making his family proud is what makes him go. It’s what keeps him thinking positively despite making significant sacrifices, none bigger than not seeing his mother in more than six years.

If the Dodgers need him in a high-leverage situation this postseason, Graterol knows he’ll be ready. After all, it’s no comparison to what he has had to go through to get to this moment.

“It was tough,” Graterol said. “But God’s timing has been perfect.”